Sleep When Your Life Depends On It – Selecting The Best Air Pad / Air Mattress for a Bug-Out Situation


What would you respond to a simple question, “What’s the single most useful weapon or tool we have in a bug out situation?”

Sure, it’s fun getting compliments on the new blade and trying out the new illuminated scope you just paid a small fortune for.

But would it be as fun if your hands were trembling and you could barely keep your eyes open?

Our tools and weapons are only as useful as the person wielding them.

That’s what this guide is all about – one of the essentials for any smart prepper – SLEEP.

To be more precise, it’s about finding the best air mattress for our shelters and best sleeping pads for our BOBs.

It might not be as “glamorous” as talking about tac gear, but when SHTF we need our best selves to handle the gear and protect what we love.

If you’re think you can go days with little sleep and maintain your shape, you’ve been duped into believing a myth, my friend.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

As recent studies show, ONLY ONE NIGHT of bad sleep sets in motion a cascade of cognitive impairments that compromises your ability to defend your own when the moment comes.

So, let’s get to the “meat” of things and make sure we stay sharp in the face of calamity.

Sorting the basics out – an air mattress and a sleeping pad

An air mattress is only an option for your trunk or the shelf of your shelter.

After we’ve dealt with sleeping pads, we’ll go over a few rules to keep in mind when choosing the best high-rise air mattress.

Sleeping pads we’ll be talking about are the kind you’re using on your hiking/camping trips (if you’re into that). We’ll put our prepper glasses on and look at the products from a different angle.

Some of the questions we’ll address:

How is the choice of a sleeping pad for a bug out bag different?

How to plan for different scenarios and get the most versatile sleeping gear while “sacrificing” minimum space?

Choosing a sleeping pad for your bug out bag

OK, so every inch counts and every ounce counts. Let’s dig into our options and what to look for when choosing a sleeping pad.

There’s a lot of vague and confusing information out there, so we’ll debunk some myths along the way and try to make things as precise as possible without getting into the nitty-gritty.

Types of sleeping pads

There are two main types of sleeping pads. Well, three really, but one of those is a sub-type.

Anyway, you have your foam mats and inflatable pads (classic or self-inflating…more on the difference between the two in a minute).

Closed cell foam mats

Foam Mat

Foam Mat

The lightest and the cheapest option – these don’t inflate so you can’t puncture them, they’re practically indestructible.

The insulation offered in the better ones is pretty good, but on their own, they provide very little comfort (it’s a thin piece of foam after all).

Having said that, the mats make one hell of a combo with light pads and/or sleeping bags.

Main downsides:

  • There’s no air in it so you can’t deflate and pack it. You roll or fold it and strap it to the side or under your backpack.
  • Not comfortable on its own. If you’re sleeping outside, a foam mat alone will do very little for you.

Best use: Combined with a sleeping pad and/or bag.

Versatility comes in layers!

Foam Mat and Air Pad

Foam Mat and Air Pad

Air pads

These have come a long way from the inflatables you’d see on beaches, and that goes for all quality aspects that matter: materials, packing size, weight, size options…

Strip it off the fancy terms you’ll see in the company specs, and it’s still a piece of material, most of the time some sort of PVC with some plasticizers added to soften it and make it more comfortable.

It’s light and packs small (the best of these pack as small as a sneaker or a beer can).

Packed Air Pad

Packed Air Pad

Main issues: Fragile and easily punctured, so placing it directly on the ground is never a good idea. Because it’s only material and air, if it’s damaged beyond repair it becomes just a piece of plastic.

You inflate these manually (mouth-to-valve or by pressing an integrated pump).

Best use: Combined with a foam mat.

Self-inflating pads

It’s been over 4 decades since John Boroughs, an engineer who was let go from Boeing in the infamous layoffs of the early 70s, changed the landscape of the industry of air pads by introducing a self-inflating pad.

You might think these work much like a battery-operated air mattress but you’d be wrong.

The inside of these pads is filled with open-cell foam, which tends to return to its natural shape after being deformed. Plainly speaking – you push the air out as you fold the pad and the foam sucks it back in as you unfold it and open the valve.

Valve of a Self-Inflating Pad

Valve of a Self-Inflating Pad

Unlike with a classic air pad, if you puncture the material of a self-inflatable, you’re not left with a useless piece of plastic. Even if you can’t repair it, the foam itself offers some comfort and insulation.

Main downsides: Although the technology and the materials evolved, making these easier to pack and carry, there’s still foam inside and they don’t pack as small as a regular air pad.

Another thing worth mentioning is that, over-time, the open-cell foam loses some of its “rebounding” ability and the pad doesn’t inflate as well as it used to.

The enigma of the R-value

There’s way too much fuss about the R-value of a sleeping pad, so let us cut through the clutter of vague statements out there and make it really simple.

Let’s get to it…

The basics

R-value is a number that represents Thermal Resistance (hence the R). The higher the number, the more insulation your pad will offer.

Some of the info we’re about to present is approximative and is meant to be used as reference.

How R-value relates to temperatures

This is where the information gap is and where most people get confused.

Some brands do offer what they call temperature ratings, so we compared the relationship across a few dozen of brands and products to come up with the table below:



Can I compare R-values across brands?

Here’s a dirty little secret of the industry – R-value of a pad is a standard and it has a unique formula. However, there’s no standard when it comes to how it’s measured.

This means that comparing it across brands is, to put it mildly, imprecise and can only be used as a reference.

That’s why choosing a good brand of inflatables (both air mattresses and pads), and sticking with it, is a good idea.

How do I add up the values of two pieces of gear?

This is a crucial piece of information because it allows you to mix and match looking for the combo that covers most of your scenarios.

Adding up the R-value of two items is approximately linear, meaning that if you combine a foam mat with an R-value of 2.5 and a pad with an R-value of 3, the total R-value is close to 5.5.

We say “close” because there is some energy loss, but it’s nothing you should lose sleep over (pun intended).

This raises the question of…

How to combine the two pieces?

The short answer to this would be – aim for the most comfortable setting.

This shifts the focus from R-values to the thickness of the items. In plain terms, go with the thicker item on top.

Although it’s true that this setting is slightly less efficient in heat retention, it’s far superior in comfort and more than makes up for the small energy loss.

Bottom line – if you have two pads and you want to double-up, go with the thicker pad on top.

The sweet spot

The range between 3.5 and 4.5 is where you’ll find the most versatile pads.

These are the pads that you would call “four-season”, which means they cover most scenarios, especially combined with a foam mat.

If you go below 3, you are entering a zone of pads designed for warm climates and if you go above 5, the pads become too bulky and heavy for a backpack.

Weight and size of a pad

For the needs of a prepper, the pads designed to be ultra light and pack extra small are rarely a good choice.

Yes, you will save a couple of ounces in weight but you sacrifice too much of the pad’s versatility. The little weight and room you save rarely justifies it.

Rule of thumb – don’t go for anything that can’t comfortably fit your shoulders and the full length of your body.

Right Width and Length

Right Width and Length

Women and side-sleepers

A tapered or a “mummy” design (semi-rectangular, broader at the hips) is best-suited for women since they are, generally speaking, colder sleepers and require more insulation at the hips and feet.

The design also provides extra comfort for side-sleepers.

That pretty much covers all the main INs and OUTs of choosing a good mat, pad or a combo of the two for your BOB.

So, as we promised, let’s go over a few rules for choosing a good airbed.

Best air mattress for your shelter

Whether you have a spacious off-the-grid shelter or you need to set up one elsewhere, there are a number of realistic scenarios that will call for a sturdy and durable air bed:

  • If your shelter in tightly packed, the fact that you can pack up and store your bed during the day and set it up for the night is a substantial advantage
  • An air mattress can be sealed and kept at your shelter without bacteria or bed bugs spreading as opposed to a regular mattress that will sit there and collect dust
  • With most people being unprepared as they are, there’s a high chance you’ll have to accommodate a few extra souls when SHTF

So, whatever your given scenario, having a good air mattress on-hand is simply smart.

Now, let’s make sure that we know what to look for when choosing.

Cutting through the clutter of information

In a jungle of a market that we have today, the word “quality” is freely thrown around, which strips it of its very meaning.

If everything is “high-quality”, how can you tell the difference between brands and products just using the word and those genuinely superior?

You do it by educating yourself to look past the marketing blabber and into specifics that actually mean something.


Most of the airbeds are made of PVC and claims like “high-quality PVC” and “puncture-resistant” mean very little.

One of the crucial factors that determine the durability of the air mattress is the thickness of the PVC. So, instead of scanning through the specs filled with dazzling terms, look for actual information on the thickness of the material.

To be specific, don’t go for anything lower than 0.4 mm. Ideally, a thickness of 0.6 is right up our alley.

Structural design, air retention and chambers

Another crucial factor is the internal structure.

Let’s make it simple – the “internal structure” are the air cells of the mattress. The number and shape of these determine how well the weight is distributed across the sleeping surface.

This impacts the comfort and the durability.

Generally, the airbeds with a chambered-design beat the ones with end-to-end air beams.

Chambered Design of an Airbed

Chambered Design of an Airbed

Make it a rule to go with 30+ chambers and you’re set.

Fumes and safety

There’s a notion that, because of the PVC used, airbeds are somehow a health hazard.

It’s a remnant of days long gone.

Unless you are picking from the bottom of the barrel, modern airbeds have the lower fumes-involved (off-gassing) health risks than any other type of mattress.

Take a moment with the following graph:

Off-Gassing by Mattress Type

Off-Gassing by Mattress Type

Note: If safety and fumes are still a concern for you, you can always take the extra precaution of choosing an air mattress that’s phthalates and BP-free (those are the chemicals that created the concerns in the first place) or even go with an airbed that’s completely PVC-free (only textile used).


General rules of what makes a good pump in an air mattress are somewhat different for a prepper.

Besides choosing a pump that’s reliable and doesn’t leak air, a prepper has to think about possible power outages and choosing an airbed that features a pump that can be both battery and manually-operated.

Speed of the pump is only a secondary factor at best.

Know how to read user reviews of the air mattresses

So, you’ve got your eyes on a specific model, you go to one of the e-commerce websites that carries the beds and you read the raging reviews it’s getting.

Take your time and don’t jump to conclusions, the reviews can be deceiving.

Here are a few common “traps” and quick fixes:

  • Problem: The reviews might not be real. Not all the websites have a system in place that ensures that all reviews are from verified buyers.
  • Solution: Make the websites that have the verification system in place your go-to sources for user reviews.
  • Problem: The sample is not big enough. Think of it like this – even if the website has a system in place that verifies the reviews, a company that brings a new product to the market can easily organize buying 10 or 15 of it and leaving full 5-star reviews. This is an attempt to artificially push the air mattress towards the top-rated ones.
  • Solution: Make it a rule not to go with any product that has fewer than 50 reviews. These are the ones that stood the test of time.
  • Problem: The quality of the product has changed and the positive (or negative) reviews you are reading might not be relevant anymore.
  • Solution: Sort the review by “most recent” and analyze them starting from the top – these are the most relevant.

Wrapping it up

There’s an abundance of information out there on other basics, like water filtration systems, nutritional value of energy bars…but there seems to be a gap in addressing what simply has to be a part of any well-crafted preparedness plan – sleeping arrangements.

If this guide at least starts to bridge that gap, we’ll sleep tight tonight.

Stay safe, stay smart
James Menta
Editor-in-chief of

This is a guest post. 


This article first appeared on Ed That Matters.

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Todd Sepulveda

I'm the owner/editor of Prepper Website, a DAILY preparedness aggregator that links to the best preparedness articles on the internet. I'm also a public school administrator and a pastor. My personal blog is Ed That Matters, where I write about preparedness and from time to time, education. Connect with me on one of my social media outlets below.

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One Response

  1. Sideliner 1950 April 24, 2016

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